BATA hybrid buses fall short of expectations

In 2002, a $3.5 million federally funded grant was created that required BATA to purchase six hybrid buses and a wind turbine as part of a way to become more environmentally friendly.

Due to government pushes more than a decade ago to 'Go Green' and evolve technology used for hybrid vehicles, Bay Area Transportation Authority was one of many transportation services in the state that made a move to change their buses. Now the two hybrid-electric buses they purchased don't run.

In 2002, a $3.5 million federally funded grant was created that required BATA to purchase six hybrid buses and a wind turbine as part of a way to become more environmentally friendly.

Unfortunately, BATA's previous Executive Director, Joe DeKoning, never used the grant money and when Tom Menzel, the current Executive Director, discovered the contract on an office shelf in 2009, only a year away from it's expiration date, it was too late for him to try and make any changes. He says he was then stuck with the decision of whether or not to order the eco-friendly bus, or throw away the money.

"The original intent was that if the hybrid buses worked, we would use them and bring in a new fleet because they are more fuel-efficient," said Menzel.

Menzel said he was nervous to purchase all six of the hybrid buses at once because he saw how poorly the one they already had was running.

â??It was here when I got here. It wasn't operating when I got here. We tried to get it up and operating,â?? said Menzel.

â??I would say that it didn't really work great right out-of-the-box,â?? said BATA Business Director, Carrie Thompson. â??We had somebody that kind of helped it limp along for a while.â??

Thompson, was around when the original was purchased as a diesel bus, and later converted into a hybrid in 2004. She said that the government made statements that the hybrid technology had improved between 2004 and 2009.

According to an interview with DeKoning in 2005, the conversion of the bus was funded through separate grant money and was meant to be a positive purchase.

â??Talked to our congressional delegation and said, â??what can you do to help us,â?? and they came through and we got the first round of grants and had them build this prototype bus,â?? DeKoning said in 2005.

Menzel decided to act on the 2002 grant and he purchased another hybrid bus to see how it ran. It was purchased in 2010 and displayed at public events around town. Shortly after, Menzel and his team realized that the bus would not run correctly during normal routes, and that it was going to cost more to repair it and keep it running.

â??We quickly realized that,â?? said Menzel. â??Not wanting to throw good money away after bad, we went back and got permission to not order any of the additional five but use those funds for any immediate needs that we had within the organization.â??

Both of the hybrid buses at BATA are considered prototypes. According to Menzel and Thompson, vehicles used for public transportation are Altoona Tested. Menzel says it means that vehicles like school buses and public transportation buses are sent to Altoona Pennsylvania to be tested to make sure they run correctly. The Federal Transportation Administration along with the Michigan Department of Transportation regulates this.

The two BATA prototypes were never tested. The grant contract that was established and signed by DeKoning in 2002 and was used to purchase the 2010 hybrid bus excluded any agreement to have it Altoona Tested.

â??I suppose in terms of laying blame, probably not putting in the contract that it had to be Altoona Tested before it even became a prototype in the market place would be a critical error on management of BATA at that time back in early 2000,â?? said Menzel.

MDOT had this to say about not having the hybrid bus prototypes tested:

â??It allows companies to put out products, test them out in real life public transit services, and then later down the line if a company decides to purchase more buses, then they must have the bus model tested,â?? said Michael Frezell.

With the help MDOT, BATA then had to convince the FTA that these buses had problems and that they could better use the money for other projects. After the FTA granted the request, BATA was able to purchase more gasoline and diesel fueled buses, improve the ones they already had, and make improvements to their facility with the remaining grant money. Many of the improvements that were made were environmentally friendly, according to BATA leaders.

BATA was recently given permission to get rid of both of their hybrid buses. They are working to sell the one purchased in 2010 as soon as possible, but they cannot sell the 2004 bus until 2015. BATA plans to use the money to purchase two refurbished gasoline or diesel fueled buses.

While both of the hybrid buses were funded through grant money, any repairs came from BATAâ??s general fund. Menzel and Thompson estimated that around $3,000 was spent on the bus purchased in 2010.

They said the 2004 bus had fewer repairs that needed to be done on it compared to the 2010 one, but that they had to spend around $17,000 to replace batteries on it.

Menzel said heâ??s been in contact with transit services in Roscommon and Charlevoix Counties who say they too are attempting to sell their hybrid buses that no longer run.

â??It has to be a pretty large problem for the FTA to say we're going to throw out these regulations and let you get rid of them whenever you can,â?? said Menzel.

BATA said the buses cost more than $400 thousand in federal grant money.